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Is COVID “Organizational Transformation” a Fad Diet?

Many employers sent employees home mid-March (variable globally). Most organizations held their breath while doing what they needed to do to get people working from home. What was previously “impossible”, to have the entire workforce working remotely, suddenly became possible, we did it.

However, maybe we had the capability all along and we have other forces at play – the “real rules”, the real identities of our organizations and our leaders. How we see ourselves is a powerful force. Are we any different now than we were before COVID? The obvious answer is yes, but I would argue that depends.

Individual Transformation Leads to Organizational Transformation

For a transition to occur, we need to see ourselves, and our organizations differently. This is a gap between lasting change and change that sticks for a short duration. When someone tries to change You, a change is imposed on an existing “system”, it comes from the outside-in, and often it bounces off – like a fad diet.

For a “culture change” for example, we’re aiming for a culture transition, a shift in identity, a growth of new culture, rather than an imposition of a system on a system. When you decide to make a change and sustain it, it starts from within, growing outwards through tiny steps, to change us and who we are, to transform. Therefore, we as individuals must transform for our organizations to transform.

If we look at this organizationally, what we see and say is that “COVID changed us”. The question of will it stick or not is – have we grown and become something different, as individuals or organizations? Or are we simply who we always were, and “we’re likely to go back to being “Us” after all this blows over.” Are we just Doing something different for now, but haven’t Become anything new?

COVID is an Organization Heart Attack

Most of the time, a change event does not change a person. In Kotter’s psychological transition (2012), the sustainment and the journey are the transformation – this rings true for organizations, as they are a collection of people.

One poignant example of this in individuals is data shown in patients who have survived a heart attack (a huge change event), but not made a sustaining transition to a healthier or preventative lifestyle. Studies have found that up to 60% of these patients discontinue their mediation within the first year of the event, knowing these are essential to secondary prevention (Garvalia, Garvalia, Spertus, Decker, 2009). The patients made temporary changes but didn’t change themselves. Their identities were not transformed and they simply returned to who they were before the change event; they did not become someone different – their old habits in diet and lifestyle persisted. They did not make the psychological or cognitive transition to “being” a new version of themselves.

In organizations we see this mirrored in change initiatives all the time – we have implemented many new things but haven’t changed who we are and how we think. We have to change from the inside-out as well as the outside-in for change to sustain and transform us.

COVID is in many ways, our organizational heart attack, the change event – all of our organizations experienced this event, to varying degrees. We have all been changed, however, it is not in itself, transformational.

Culture Reflects Leadership

Most workplaces have long-standing flex work policies, which allowed employees to work from home. For many companies, flex work was lip service and not acceptable for employees to work this way. If we are capable and reaping some benefits from this now, why were they not used more? In a word, Leadership. The culture leadership creates – in every action, every thought, everything said and unsaid, every day. Your organization reflects your leaders. This is HR’s biggest challenge, and opportunity. We must guide leaders in creating and sustaining the environment for the culture we want in our organizations, for engagement, and for leadership that enables people to bring their best to work.

Culture is reflective of leadership, it’s a mirror. Leadership is the force exerted on the organization to keep it where it is (gravity) or lift it forward (propulsion). What we do and how we think and feel are all reflective of the “real rules” and “values” of leaders within the organization – not the policies and procedures we have written, or the values on the wall. What are leaders thinking right now? As I’m coaching or educating leaders remotely, I hear anything ranging from “I can’t wait to go back to normal” to “I will never go back to the old way”. The critical mass of leaders thinking and feeling, how they see themselves as leaders will determine the shift in an organization’s identity. Some are leveraging COVID as an opportunity to become something new – this will likely create lasting change and will be because their leaders have led in shifting their mindset, their identity and helped their teams shift as well.

Has the COVID pandemic transformed our organizations? There is no magic. Just as tech does not create a digital transformation, or as a fitness watch or a life-altering heart attack does not create a healthy lifestyle, the COVID pandemic itself will not create a transformation unless we are changing our actions + hearts + minds to become something new.

Have leaders developed through this, has the leadership mindset shifted – do we think and feel differently about how we work, who we are, how we lead? If yes, then this change will likely be transformative. If no, it might be a Fad Diet. The changes we’ve experienced in the workplace have brought us some pain, and also have shown us tremendous benefits, including our humanity as leaders… I hope leaders find ways to make the “good stuff” sustain and enable a change inside-out.

About the Author

Jasmine is a neuroscience-based coach who works globally to develop agility in leadership and revolutionize the world of work and focuses on the intersection of leadership, neuroscience, physiology, and behavioral change. She connects people to new possibilities, enabling them to blast past their expectations, and partners with high-performing leaders to redirect their default behaviors to get what they want.

She's also the CEO of AMP Coaching & Consulting.